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Obama: Ukraine 'Vulnerable' To Russian 'Military Domination' No Matter What U.S. Does

  • RFE/RL

Instead of launching air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chemical weapons stockpiles, U.S. President Barack Obama said he pulled Vladimir Putin (left) aside at a G20 summit in St. Petersburg and told his Russian counterpart "that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike."

Instead of launching air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chemical weapons stockpiles, U.S. President Barack Obama said he pulled Vladimir Putin (left) aside at a G20 summit in St. Petersburg and told his Russian counterpart "that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike."

U.S. President Barack Obama said that Ukraine "is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what" the United States does.

In one of a series of interviews published on March 10 that formed the basis of an article in The Atlantic magazine, Obama said that Ukraine was clearly a core interest for Russia but suggested that it may not be one for the United States.

Ukraine is "an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for," Obama said.

He rejected the notion that "the decision making of Russia or China" could somehow be influenced by "talking tough or engaging in some military action" in such situations. Such an idea "is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years," Obama said.

Obama resisted pressure last year to send lethal military aid to help Kyiv fight against Russia-backed separatists who control part of eastern Ukraine. Their war against government forces has killed more than 9,100 people since it broke out in April 2014 -- shortly after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.

Obama said that there are "ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not."

"If there is somebody in [Washington] that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it."

'The Obama Doctrine'

The Atlantic article -- titled The Obama Doctrine -- compiles and analyzes remarks on U.S. foreign policy made by Obama in a series of exclusive interviews he has given to the magazine's national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg, since 2006.

The image that emerges is of a president who is hesitant to be pulled by his allies in Europe and the Middle East into conflicts that have little to do with what he considers the country's primary interests.

The article reveals that Obama, from 2009 until well into 2013, thought that direct U.S. military intervention in the Middle East was only potentially warranted by a handful of threats -- Al-Qaeda terrorists, threats to the existence of Israel, and attempts by Iran to build nuclear weapons.

Obama defended his initial refusal to support moderate opposition fighters in Syria who had been described by some observers as farmers, doctors, and carpenters.

He told Goldberg it "was never true" that the United States could have "changed the equation on the ground" in Syria without committing U.S. forces.

He said that was because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are "a professional army that is well armed and sponsored by two large states [Iran and Russia] who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict."

Obama also defended his refusal to enforce his own "red line" against Assad in August 2013 after United Nations monitors confirmed Assad's forces had used chemical weapons against civilians and opposition fighters in Syria.

Instead of launching air strikes against Assad and his chemical weapons stockpiles, Obama said he pulled Vladimir Putin aside at a summit of the Group of 20 leading industrialized nations (G20) in St. Petersburg a week later and told the Russian president "that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike."

'Credibility At Stake'

Obama said he was "very proud" of the moment several weeks later when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov worked out a plan for the removal of most of Syria's chemical weapons.

"The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America's credibility was at stake," Obama said."And for me to press the pause button at that moment…to pull back from the immediate pressure and think through in my own mind what was in America's interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I've made."

"I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make," he said.

Obama also said that Putin is "constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he's not completely stupid."

Putin "understands that Russia's overall position in the world is significantly diminished," he said. "And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn't suddenly make him a player."

Obama said that in both Ukraine and Syria, Putin acted "in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp" and "improvised" a way to maintain control -- but that in Syria, this came at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country."

"And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally," he said. "Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.

Regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry has helped fuel the war in Syria and violence elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama said that their competition "requires us to say to our friends, as well as to the Iranians, that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace."

He said that supporting Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, in all of its disputes with Iran "would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores."

Obama said that would not be in the interest of the United States or of the Middle East.

On Libya, Obama said that the NATO intervention in 2011 "didn't work," and that he had wrongly concluded that Britain and France would carry more of the burden of the military operation.

"What has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game," Obama said.

With reporting by The Atlantic, The New York Times, AP, and Reuters
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